Eastern Conference finals preview: Milwaukee Bucks vs. Toronto Raptors

The top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks and second-seeded Toronto Raptors respectively took care of business against the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers in the second round of the NBA playoffs. This marks Toronto’s second Eastern Conference finals appearance in four years and the first for Milwaukee since 2001. The two teams last met in the 2017 playoffs, when the Raptors beat the Bucks in six games.

How they got here

Milwaukee: Faced with their first real test after posting the NBA’s best record and net rating (plus-8.6) during the regular season, the Bucks passed with flying colors, save for a Game 1 hiccup against the Celtics. Milwaukee won the final four games of the conference semifinals in dominating fashion, trampling a Boston team that packed it in and left everyone wondering how much of a test the series really was.

Make no mistake, though, the Bucks are a vastly different team than the one that lost first-round series to the Raptors and Celtics the previous two seasons. The top of their rotation may look largely the same, but Milwaukee’s front office spent the past year filling out the roster in an attempt to maximize Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Floor-spacing bigs Brook Lopez and Nikola Mirotic ensure new coach Mike Budenholzer can spread shooters at every position and make room for Giannis’ relentless rim attacks. The Bucks went from 26 3-point attempts per game in last year’s postseason (14th among 16 playoff teams) to 38 on this run (second only to the Houston Rockets). They own the East’s best playoff offense by a wide margin — almost five points per 100 possessions better than the Raptors — as a result.

They also own the conference’s top defensive rating this postseason over Toronto, thanks in part to facing a hapless Detroit Pistons team in the first round. The philosophy that led Milwaukee to attempt fewer long jump shots this season is the same one they use to funnel opponents into those same shots. They have more length than just Giannis’ sprawling arms to both protect the rim and challenge 3-pointers. Their discipline in all facets is remarkably improved from last season.

Even more surprising is the emergence of George Hill and Pat Connaughton as reliable reserves. Hill has loads of playoff experience, but his most recent run with the Cleveland Cavaliers last year suggested his best days were behind him, and Connaughton was forced into action by the absence of Malcolm Brogdon, who missed the first four games of the Boston series with a plantar fascia tear. Brogdon returned in limited minutes for Game 5 against the Celtics, but that still didn’t stop Hill and Connaughton from combining for 23 points and 14 rebounds off the bench.

Add it all up — Antetokounmpo’s MVP and Defensive Player of the Year campaign, Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe’s All-Star-worthy turns and a supporting cast that is rounding into form at the perfect time — and the Bucks are 8-1 through two rounds, looking more like LeBron James’ Cavs than a first-time conference finalist.

Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard will battle for Eastern Conference supremacy in more ways than one. (Getty Images)
Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard will battle for Eastern Conference supremacy in more ways than one. (Getty Images)

Toronto: When LeBron left for the Los Angeles Lakers, the Raptors thought they were rid of unstoppable forces on teams built to weaponize their potential, but now they must contend with Antetokounmpo. This time, though, they come equipped with their own freakish superstar and a roster suited to handle just about anything.

Kawhi Leonard has been the NBA’s most consistently great playoff performer this season, averaging 32 points on 54/41/87 shooting splits. His incredible Game 7 winner against the Sixers embodied every reason Toronto traded franchise favorite DeMar Derozan for him this past summer. The free agent to be was worth the risk.

The rise of fellow rangy forward Pascal Siakam as a bona fide playmaker has made Kyle Lowry’s customary playoff fall from grace easier for the Raptors to swallow, even if Siakam shied from Sunday’s Game 7 moment, too. The Leonard-Siakam pairing also forms the foundation of a defense that switches and stifles everything.

How Toronto survived the Sixers with super-sub Fred VanVleet shooting so poorly and without OG Anunoby, another versatile swingman whose emergency appendectomy cost him the series, is a testament to how much weight Leonard and Siakam have carried. The downturn of Toronto’s bench, save for the occasional Serge Ibaka breakout, has been as surprising as the Milwaukee bench’s uptick.

Let’s not mistake a tough collective turn for their reserves as a depth problem for the Raptors. They also added stud center Marc Gasol, another former Defensive Player of the Year who all but erased Sixers star Joel Embiid from the playoffs, and 3-and-D wing Danny Green, whose résumé includes the 2014 NBA championship.

Like the Bucks, the Raptors installed a new coach this season. The stylistic changes have not been as dramatic, but the result has been the same. Toronto and Milwaukee were the only two teams to rank among the NBA’s best five offenses and defenses during the regular season, and they are the owners of the league’s two best net ratings through the first two rounds of the playoffs. It helps that Toronto played the Orlando Magic in the opening round, but the Sixers were no joke, even if the Raptors made Embiid and Ben Simmons look like one at times.

Head to head

The Bucks won the regular-season series with the Raptors, 3-1, although all four games came before the trade deadline, when Milwaukee added Mirotic and Toronto acquired Gasol, and the first meeting featured neither Antetokounmpo nor Leonard.

Throw out the Oct. 29 meeting, when Giannis had a concussion, Kawhi rested and Ersan Ilyasova was Milwaukee’s leading scorer in a 124-109 victory. Only one game came down to the final minute — a Dec. 9 defensive battle in which nobody was especially sharp and the Bucks emerged victorious on a couple late Brogdon 3’s. Games 3 and 4 were not close, with each team winning decisively on the road.

Antetokounmpo won the statistical battle in their three games opposite Leonard, averaging an efficient 27 points (66.0 true shooting percentage), 15.3 rebounds, five assists and 2.7 combined steals/blocks over the three games. Leonard was far less consistent than he has been in the playoffs, averaging 22 points (52.2 true shooting percentage), 7.7 rebounds, four assists and four combined steals/blocks per outing.

A few more interesting wrinkles to consider from the four head-to-head meetings:

• Lowry missed Toronto’s only win and was pretty bad in the three losses, shooting 7-of-30 from the field and 1-for-20 from distance against the Bucks this season.

• Ibaka started all four games and was mostly great, averaging 22.3 points, 8.5 rebounds, three assists and 2.8 combined blocks/steals while finishing a plus-23.

• Middleton and Siakam, the two co-stars, were both consistently good.

Khris Middleton and Pascal Siakam are a pair of unlikely but underrated co-stars. (AP)
Khris Middleton and Pascal Siakam are a pair of unlikely but underrated co-stars. (AP)

Likely starting lineups

Nurse has largely stuck with the same starting lineup since swapping Ibaka out for Gasol in the five-man unit that features Lowry, Green, Leonard and Siakam. That group played only 161 post-trade minutes over 14 games together during the regular season, outscoring opponents by 12.2 points per 100 possessions.

They played another 233 minutes together in the first two rounds of the playoffs, outscoring the Magic and Sixers by an impressive 94 points in that span. Of all the other five-man groupings in the playoffs, only Philadelphia’s starters were better than plus-55, which means Toronto’s best five is really freaking good together.

Of interest is also Ibaka’s impact thus far in the playoffs. The Raptors have been just as dominant, if not more, both with him in place of Gasol in the starting group or in a small-ball lineup of Lowry, VanVleet, Norman Powell and Leonard. Whether Nurse considers reinserting Ibaka into the starting lineup will likely depend on how effective Gasol is in challenging Lopez while still helping on Giannis in the middle.

Milwaukee’s starting unit has been more in flux. Brogdon missed the entirety of the playoffs until returning to play 17 minutes off the bench in the close-out Game 5 against Boston. He looked OK for someone who had not played in two months, and with a few more days of rest, the third-year guard could return to a starting lineup that has seen Sterling Brown and Mirotic take his place depending on matchups.

The Bucks outscored opponents by 6.2 points per 100 possessions in nearly 600 minutes with Brogdon in a starting lineup that featured mainstays Antetokounmpo, Middleton, Bledsoe and Lopez during the regular season. That unit started three games against the Raptors this season and finished plus-nine in 33 minutes.

After the Celtics blew them out in Game 1, Budenholzer inserted Mirotic into his starting lineup with Antetokounmpo, Middleton, Bledsoe and Lopez. The Bucks won their next four games, but that grouping was actually outscored by a point over 39 minutes against Boston. Mirotic has not faced Toronto while with the Bucks, but it is hard to imagine him chasing Leonard, Siakam or Green defensively, so the guess is that Brogdon will be back with the starting lineup as soon as possible.

Matchups to watch

Giannis vs. Kawhi: The two superstars rarely defended each other during the regular season. Those responsibilities largely fell on Siakam and Middleton, respectively, although Antetokounmpo and Leonard guarded each other well in limited possessions. Regardless, this matchup is more of a challenge to determine which player rules the East. They are heads and shoulders above anyone else in the conference, both offensively and defensively, and it is hard to imagine either team winning the series without its star player rising to claim the throne left by LeBron.

Middleton vs. Siakam: Not only will they draw defensive time against Kawhi and Giannis, but their teams will be counting on their offense to overcome what expects to be a defensive battle. During the regular season, Middleton shot better than 40 percent from 3 in Milwaukee’s wins and closer to 30 percent in losses. Siakam’s splits were closer to even, but he will likely see a lot of Antetokounmpo defensively. The Cameroonian scored 32 points on 11-for-17 shooting in 116 possessions against Giannis during the regular season, and the Raptors still lost the season series. Can he continue to work that matchup? He may need to if Middleton shines.

Bledsoe vs. Lowry: These are the most straightforward of matchups, but it might be that simple in this series: Whichever team’s best three players perform better, regardless of who is matched up with whom, should win. Gasol might work Lopez, Green could outshoot Brogdon and VanVleet may heat up quicker than Hill, but none of it will matter if Milwaukee’s best three outperform Toronto’s top trio. For the record, Bledsoe held Lowry scoreless on 122 possessions in the regular season.

How Milwaukee can win

Antetokounmpo stakes his claim as the baddest beast in the East — and maybe even as the most formidable force in the entire NBA. Middleton and Bledsoe don’t lose focus in their first conference finals appearances. Brogdon gets healthy. Lopez and Mirotic don’t get played off the floor against Toronto’s more athletic lineups. They all shoot and defend like hell. This has worked for the Bucks all season, but it’s never easy for teams to make the leap from first-round fodder to the Finals.

How Toronto can win

Leonard continues his methodic march through these playoffs, performing like the two-way tyrant who seemed poise to dethrone the Golden State Warriors by himself before turning his ankle in Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference finals. Siakam meets the moment in his first trip this deep in the playoffs, and Lowry doesn’t cower in the face of mounting playoff and defensive pressure. Toronto’s bench rounds into form. And Nurse pulls the right strings to find Gasol and Ibaka favorable matchups. As good as the Bucks have been, it just feels like the Raptors should win if everyone on both teams plays the way they are capable of playing.

Prediction: Raptors in seven.

Western Conference finals preview: Golden State Warriors vs. Portland Trail Blazers

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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